Stage Door Review

Fierrabras

Monday, February 4, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Franz Schubert, directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin 

VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

February 3, 2019


Chorus: “Nach langer Leiden Qualen

Erwacht die reine Lust” 

On Sunday, February 3, VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert presented the Canadian premiere of Fierrabras*, an opera by Franz Schubert (1797-1828) never staged in his lifetime. The performance was a revelation. The only non-Italian operas that most people know between Mozart and Wagner are Beethoven’s Fidelio (1805) and Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821). Schubert’s Fierrabras provides another fascinating link filled with an abundance of glorious music and is given a fine performance by the cast, the Opera in Concert Chorus and the Aradia Ensemble under Kevin Mallon.

In 1822 Vienna was besieged by a mania for the operas of Gioacchino Rossini. To counter that, Joseph Kupelwieser, director of the Theater am Kärntertor, set out to commission operas in German. The first of his commissions was Euryanthe by Weber. The second was Fierrabras. After the abject failure of Euryanthe in 1823, Kupelwieser withdrew plans to stage Fierrabras and resigned without even paying Schubert for his work.

The opera’s first staging did not occur until 1897 in a much cut and altered version. Though there were various attempts to revive the work in the 20th century, the first one to succeed in drawing attention to the opera’s strengths was that conducted by Claudio Abbado at the Theater an der Wien directed by Ruth Berghaus and finally in 1990 at the Vienna State Opera. Since then it has been revived more frequently than it had been in the previous 167 years. But it is not ever likely to become standard repertory. This year only one opera company in the world, the Stadttheater Bern, is providing a full staging of Fierrabras. The only other place to hear the work this year was here in Toronto.

Schubert’s librettist and the one who commissioned the opera, Kupelwieser himself, drew on two main sources. Chansons de geste concerning Fierabras date back to the 12th century, but the most important source and first to be printed was Le rommant de Fierabras le geant by Jehan Bagnyon in 1478. His other source was a recent translation of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s La Puente de Mantible (c.1630), based on stories of Charlemagne and his knights.

The two sources gave Kupelwieser the two love plots for his libretto. Emma (Amy Moodie), the daughter of King Karl (i.e. Charlemagne) (Alexander Dobson) has fallen in love with Eginhard (Lawrence Wiliford), one of Karl’s knights. They have to hide their relationship because Karl would never approve of Emma’s marrying so far beneath her.

Meanwhile, Fierrabras (Matthew Dalen), son of the Moorish prince Boland (Justin Welsh), has been captured in battle by Karl’s most eminent knight Roland (Evan Korbut). To his distress, Fierrabras realizes that Emma is the young woman he fell in love with in Rome four years earlier. (Historically, Saracens laid siege to Rome in 846 AD, thus giving us a clue when the action take place.) When Karl in on the verge of spying Emma and Eginhard together, Fierrabras saves the situation by letting Eginhard escape and escorting Emma back to her lodgings. Unfortunately, Karl misconstrues this as Fierrabras’ attempt to kidnap Emma. Karl gives up the leniency he had shown Fierabras at Roland’s insistence and imprisons him.

In Spain a similar scene plays out. Eginhard and Roland, who had gone there to broker peace, are captured by Boland along with all of their knights. Learning of Karl’s treatment of Fierrabras, Boland condemns Eginhard, Roland and the knights to death. When Roland sees Boland’s daughter Florinda (Jocelyn Fralick), he realizes that she is the one he had fallen in love with four years earlier in Rome. Unlike the more passive Emma, Florinda is ready to defy her father to save the man she loves. She frees Eginhard, Roland and the knights, but when Boland discovers what she has done, he condemns her to death.

While Schubert is classified as a Romantic composer, the plot that Kupelwieser has devised is more fully imbued with the ideas of the Enlightenment. Kupelwieser creates a strict symmetry between the events in the Holy Roman Empire and in Spain. The love between the rulers’ daughters and their lovers is forbidden because of the bias of their fathers. Karl and Boland are at war but the way they treat their children shows they are both hot-tempered. Boland even admits this to Karl as a cause for the war: “Durch Wahn und Täuschung war mein Herz gebunden” (“By madness and delusion my heart was bound”). 

At the same time, all the expressions of prejudice – Karl for the Moors and the lower class, Boland for the Franks – come from the rulers themselves, not from the younger generation. When Karl wants to punish Fierrabras, Roland, who conquered him, intercedes and says that Fierrabras, the enemy, fought magnificently like a hero and should be treated as such. In both the Holy Roman Empire and in Spain the younger generation place personal loyalty and respect above bias. Emma is willing to break the barrier of class to marry Eginhard and Florinda the barrier of religion to marry Roland. 

The noblest character of all is Fierrabras, who though a Moor, is the opposite of being the barbarian that Karl calls him. When Fierrabras sees that Eginhard loves Emma, he suppresses his own love for her. When Karl wants to punish him, he does not rage against him but accepts the punishment courageously. At the end when Karl asks what reward he wishes, Fierrabras says he wants to fight under Karl’s banners. Many will not quite know what this implies. This means not only does Fierrabras wish to fight the side he feels has the better cause, but he is willing to convert to Christianity to do so. Fierrabras’s conversion is not a new addition to the story; it was a key part of the subject matter from the 12th century on.

The main flaw with the opera, however, is the very reasonableness of the majority of its characters. As soon as a potentially dramatic situation arises such as two men loving the same woman, one of them magnanimously withdraws from the competition. Before Boland can execute Roland, the Frankish knights and his own daughter, Karl and Eginhard arrive and the two rulers almost immediately agree to cease fighting. Boland snaps out of his madness, stops the execution and allows Florinda to marry Roland.

If Kupelwieser was deficient in creating a strong dramatic arc for the opera, he excelled in crafting a huge variety of vocal groupings for Schubert to write for – from solo arias to duets and everything up to sextets to separate numbers for male chorus, female chorus and mixed chorus. The arias, like Schubert’s Lieder, tend be be reflective and beautiful in themselves but do not advance the action. Instead, Schubert relies on the frequent choral interjections for that purpose and the long choral finales of all three acts are magnificent.

Those who have not attended Opera in Concert for a few years may not know that Artistic Director Guillermo Silva-Marin has been insisting for at least the past two years that the soloists memorize their parts. This has an enormous effect on the impact the opera makes on the audience. Given that Silva-Marin has given the soloists blocking, created lighting cues for the whole performance and indicated changes of location with gobos of fortifications, vines and jail bars, the only thing that prevents the opera from feeling fully-staged is the modern formal dress that singers wear. Yet, having seen some of the faux-medieval costumes used in some productions of Fierrabras, I was quite happy the cast wore what they did. Medieval costume would have the effect of making the opera seem like some antiquarian object, whereas the OiC production helped reveal what is living and worth preserving in this work. 

I have frequently noted at previous operas in concert that the singers, though not required to act, are inclined to do so as a natural extension of the emotions they express in singing. Freed from music stand and with their parts memorized, the cast of Fierrabras acted their roles with even more detail than do some performers in fully staged operas.

OiC fielded a cast that was uniformly impressive. Matthew Dalen was well cast in the title role because of his full-bodied tenor with its heroic ring and his singing filled with passion. He gave a thrilling account of Fierrabras’ Act 1 aria “In tiefbewegter Brust” in which the hero tries to suppress his love for Emma.

As Eginhard, Lawrence Wiliford, with his strong but high-lying tenor provided a fine contrast with Dalen’s darker timbre. Wiliford demonstrated great sensitivity to the the words, lack of strain in his high notes and a warm delicacy in his pianissmi. His lovely romance “Der Abend sinkt auf stille Flur” was a fine showcase for his talent.

Amy Moodie as Emma was well cast to partner Wiliford since her soprano also lies very high. Among the predominantly male voices of Act 1, hers provided a welcome contrast with its brightness, clarity and purity. Moodie’s and Wiliford’s voices blended exquisitely in their many duets and Moodie’s voice easily soared above the sound of the massed choir.

The always dependable baritone Alexander Dobson made an excellent King Karl, authoritative both in voice and in stage presence. Schubert’s frequent requirements for Karl to sing in his lowermost range posed no difficulty for him. In fact, he seemed to relish sounding such Sarastro-like depths. In contrast, Evan Korbut as Roland was required to sing in the upper part of his baritone to produce a tone at once heroic and warm. His duet of friendship with Fierrabras was noteworthy not just because it was sensitively sung but because it embraced the ideal of friendship between people of different religions. 

Among the Spanish, Justin Welsh was a powerful Boland. As with Karl, Schubert frequently had him plumb the depths and Welsh did so with absolute security. I had not seen Welsh since his days as part of the COC Ensemble Studio and was delighted to hear the fullness his voice has achieved and its roundness of tone.

Making her debut with OiC, Jocelyn Fralick displayed a strong, rich and agile mezzo-soprano as the fiery Florinda. Her duet with Meghan Symon as Florinda’s companion Maragond, “Weit über Glanz”, is one of the highlights of the opera and the two duly received loud acclaim for their radiant performance. Singers looking for an alternative to the “Flower Duet” from Lakmé should seek it out. 

Kevin Mallon conducted the ten-member Aradia Ensemble in a splendid account of the score. For unknown reasons the Ensemble substituted the Allegro Vivace from Schubert’s Octet (D. 803) for the extant overture to the opera. The reason can’t be length since the overture is only two and a half minutes longer. In general, Mallon seemed to focus on beauty of tone over the creation of tension, both of which Abbado was apparently able to do, the tension in the music helping supply the tension missing in the plot.

Over the years, Opera in Concert has provided an invaluable service to Toronto by allowing us to hear operas that we never could expect to see staged by any of Toronto’s opera companies. Fierrabras is a particular rarity. OiC made such a fine case for it that I would gladly have attended a second performance and brought friends with me if only to hear Schubert’s gorgeous music so well sung and played. 

More than this, the performance made me wonder whether people have been blinded by Schubert’s designation of the piece as a “Heroisch-romantische Oper” when, in fact, it really belongs to the rarified genre of the comédie héroique, prevalent in 17th-century drama, especially in Spain, which deals with characters of high rank and noble feelings whose loyalties may be tested but which arrives at a happy ending. The work does have a happy ending and has the fundamental structure of comedy in that the views of the younger generation come to triumph over those of the older generation. The representatives of the older generation were at war and are embodiments of class, religious and cultural prejudice, whereas the younger generation is freer to see past these boundaries and seek harmony among all people. 

Viewed this way, Fierrabras is not the antique piece it is sometimes made out to be but a prescient reflection of a generational shift that is happening today. Should some enlightened director manage to see this as the basic struggle in the opera, it might be possible for people to realize that Fierrabras is not merely an opera filled with beautiful music, but one whose often derided plot is actually strangely relevant. At least, OiC has given us the chance to experience the work for ourselves and for that we cannot be thankful enough. 

*OiC entitled its production “Fierabras”, which is, in fact, the correct spelling of the name of hero of medieval French romances. However, Schubert’s librettist misspelled it “Fierrabras”, with a double R, so that is its real name and is the spelling I will use. It’s just like the misspelling of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck (1925), which, according to its source, really should be spelled “Woyzeck”, but the misspelling has now become the name of the opera.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top): poster for Opera in Concert’s Fierabras, © 2019; Matthew Dalen; Amy Moodie; Alexander Dobson, © 2014 Mélissa Tremblay.